Manning, Frederic 1882-1935
MANNING, Frederic 1882-1935
PERSONAL: Born July 22, 1882, in Point Piper (some sources say Sydney), Australia; immigrated to England, 1902 (some sources say 1898); died of pneumonia, February 22, 1935, in London, England; son of Sir William (an accountant and politician) and Honora (Torpy) Manning. Education: Privately schooled.
CAREER: Novelist, critic, poet, essayist and biographer. Military service: British Army Infantry, 1916-17.
The Vigil of Brunhild (poetry), John Murray (London, England), 1907.
Scenes and Portraits (dialogues), John Murray (London, England), 1909, enlarged edition published as Scenes and Portraits, Peter Davies (London, England), 1930.
Poems, John Murray (London, England), 1910.
Eidola (poetry), John Murray (London, England), 1917.
The Life of Sir William White, John Murray (London, England), 1923.
(As Private 19022) The Middle Parts of Fortune (novel), Peter Davies/Piazza Press (London, England), 1929, abridged edition published as Her Privates We, G. P. Putnam's Sons (New York, NY), 1930.
SIDELIGHTS: Frederic Manning is chiefly remembered as the author of Her Privates We, a memoir of his experiences as a soldier during World War I. Born in Australia, where his father was a prominent politician, Manning immigrated to England at the turn of the twentieth century. In England he began pursuing a literary career with the help of his tutor, Arthur Galton, who introduced him to such contemporary literary figures as Max Beerbohm and William Butler Yeats.
Manning's first published work was a collection of poetry, The Virgil of Brunhild, which was issued in 1907. This sixty-page narrative poem follows the character Brunhild, who is condemned to death. As she is about to die, she is visited by a priest to whom she recounts her experiences. Manning's contemporaries, including the notable critic and poet Ezra Pound, praised this traditional poem, but it achieved only modest success. A second collection of poetry, simply titled Poems, was published in 1910.
Manning's next work was a collection of philosophical essays framed as fictional dialogues between men, long deceased, whose thoughts and opinions have remained influential throughout history. They include Socrates, Thomas Cromwell, Machiavelli, St. Francis of Assisi, and Pope Leo XIII. Scenes and Portraits, published in 1909, contains six dialogues that critically examine attitudes about life and literature. Critics, praising the book as inventive and eloquent, compared Manning to such philosophers as Walter Pater and Anatole France. One New York Times reviewer wrote, "Gifted with a power of subtle philosophical analysis and with a smooth-flowing style of almost classical perfection, Frederic Manning combines the qualities of the poet, of the thinker and of the student in a work calculated to appeal to those of a speculative and imaginative turn of mind."
When World War I broke out, Manning enlisted in the British Army. Although his social position merited that he be offered a commission as an officer, he chose to remain a private, feeling unqualified to lead others. He served in the trenches with the King's Shropshire Light Infantry on the battlefronts in Somme and Ancre from 1916 to 1917. In 1917 he finally accepted a commission as subaltern with an Irish regiment, but a year later he resigned due to poor health and returned to England.
In 1917 a third collection of Manning's poetry was published. Eidola includes poems about the war and a handful of pieces published just before it started. Through even these early works run both a current of sorrow and a sense of exaltation in beauty. The poem "The Sign," for example, is about the human ability to find beauty and spirituality even in such horrific environments as those Manning witnessed during the war. In it, he wrote: "And I know that this passes:/This implacable fury and torment of men,/As a thing insensate and vain:/And the stillness hath said unto me,/Over the tumult of sounds and shaken flame,/Out of the terrible beauty of wrath,/ I alone am eternal."
Some of the poems in this volume—such as "Grotesque," "Leaves," "The Trenches," and "A Shell"—portray realistic scenes of the war, anticipating Manning's later World War I novel. In "The Trenches," Manning wrote: "Endless lanes sunken in the clay./Bays, and traverses, fringed with wasted herbage,/Seed-pods of blue scabious, and some lingering blooms;/And the sky, seen as from a well,/Brilliant with frosty stars."
More than a decade after Manning resigned from the military his friend and editor Peter Davies suggested that he write about his war experiences. The result was Manning's most famous work, a fictional novel loosely based on his time on the front in France. The Middle Parts of Fortune was issued by subscription in 1929, followed by an expurgated version titled Her Privates We in 1930. Both versions were published under the pseudonym Private 19022. Although Manning wished to conceal his identity, an admirer, T. E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabia), recognized his style from previous works and word spread about Manning's authorship. Nonetheless, an edition that formally acknowledged Manning as the author did not appear until 1946, a decade after his death.
The story centers on Private Bourne, an infantryman who, like Manning, has declined a commission despite his wealthy, cultured background. In his preface, Manning wrote: "I have drawn no portraits; and my concern has been mainly with the anonymous ranks, whose opinion, often mere surmise and ill-informed, but real and true for them, I have tried to represent faithfully." Framing the novel are two battles in which Manning himself participated—the battle of the Somme at the opening of the novel, and the battle at Ancre at its end. In between is relative inactivity, giving Manning a chance to detail Bourne's relationships with his fellow soldiers and share his philosophy about the war. The secondary characters who move in and out of Private Bourne's life are vividly drawn and despite the sense of camaraderie among them, Bourne appears set apart because of his social class.
This novel has been widely viewed as Manning's finest writing. One Times Literary Supplement reviewer described it as "probably the best and honestest description of life in the ranks during the Great War that has yet appeared in English. … The picture is not only unforgettable but convincing. There are few War-books of the truth of which one feels so certain from first to last." It focused on the common soldier at a time when other novels reflected officers' perspectives. Australian critics, however, have noted that, despite his heritage, Manning, who fought for the British Army during the war, did not offer any substantive commentary on the role of Australian soldiers in the conflict.
Manning also wrote one nonfiction work, a biography of a British naval shipbuilder. The Life of Sir William White, published in 1923, covers 1885 to 1902, a busy naval shipbuilding period. Manning died in London in 1935 of pneumonia.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1987.
Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 25, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.
Athenaeum, October, 1909, review of Scenes and Portraits, p. 424.
Booklist, July, 1931, review of Scenes and Portraits, p. 514.
Bookman, August, 1931, Leo Kennedy, review of Scenes and Portraits, p. 657.
Books, April 12, 1931, B. R. Redman, review of Scenes and Portraits, p. 7.
Independent, June 20, 1910, review of Scenes and Portraits, p. 153.
Nation and Athenaeum, December 1, 1923, C. E. Fayle, review of Life of Sir William White, p. 352.
New Statesman, January 10, 2000, Oliver Ready, review of Her Privates We, p. 57.
New York Times, February 10, 1924, review of Life of Sir William White, p. 20; September 20, 1931, review of Scenes and Portraits, p. 27.
Outlook, March 25, 1931, review of Scenes and Portraits, p. 439.
Poetry, February, 1919, Harriet Monroe, "Narcissus at War," pp. 281-82.
Spectator, July 10, 1909, review of Scenes and Portraits, p. 61; January 3, 1931, Bonamy Dobreé, "Imaginary Conversations," p. 21.
Times Literary Supplement, November 15, 1923, review of Life of Sir William White, p. 764; January 16, 1930, review of Her Privates We, p. 40.*
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